21 August 2023

Viruses of the mind

Viruses are the simplest of all living things.  Indeed, it's questionable whether they should be considered "living" at all.  A virus does not eat, breathe, digest, or perform any other of the organic functions of such true organisms as animals, plants, or bacteria.  It consists of a string of DNA (or, in the case of retroviruses, RNA) within a protein shell.  It cannot even reproduce without a host cell to parasitically exploit.  Once inside the host cell, the virus DNA insinuates itself into the cell's own DNA, and diverts the functioning of the cell's internal machinery to produce copies of the virus.  A virus is not so much a living thing as a packet of pure information -- including instructions for replicating itself, and for modifying the behavior of the host organism in ways which will spread the virus (coughing, sneezing, etc).

Computer "viruses" work in much the same way and are thus aptly named.  A computer virus is not even a material object but a series of electronic codes -- again, it is a packet of pure information, usually including instructions which force the host computer to create new copies of the virus and spread them to other computers, just as a conventional virus uses a living host cell.

DNA and the systems which transcribe it, and electronic computers, are both information-processing systems.  Viruses are parasites, entities composed of information rather than flesh and blood, which exploit such systems.  As with conventional parasitism, this process usually inflicts substantial harmful effects upon the host cell or host computer, whose internal systems are perverted away from their normal functions to serve the aim of virus replication and spread.

The human mind is also an information-processing system.  And it too has its viruses.

Consider religion, especially proselytizing religion.  When this virus infects a human mind, it perverts the workings of that mind away from its normal function as part of that human's system for maintaining a happy, satisfying life.  Healthy sexual feelings are re-interpreted as "sin".  Irrational beliefs and bizarre, self-sacrificing behavior develop as the instructions from the invading ideological virus override natural mental processes.  Like a cell which ruins itself by creating countless copies of the virus that infected it, and spreading them to other cells, the human whose mind is "infected" with a proselytizing religion often becomes fanatically dedicated to spreading the infection to others, even at the expense of his own safety and well-being.  He becomes a host, a tool for the information parasite, serving the purpose of its spread rather than the advancement of his own natural desires.

Several such mind-viruses -- Christianity, Islam, fascism, Marxism -- have evolved and spread successfully.  Some human minds afflicted with these information parasites develop only mild cases (natural immunity due to better education or higher intelligence, perhaps), while others soon progress to the full-blown "fanatic" stage in which the virus is most effectively spread.

A broad education, including knowledge of science and critical thinking and exposure to a wide range of ideas, is the best "vaccine" we have against such mental viruses.  Another defense is social environments hostile to their spread -- the equivalent of public sanitation, which discourages the spread of conventional diseases.  In this case, the protective social environment is one of cultural pluralism.  Exposure to a wide range of cultures and ideas tends to render a human mind less susceptible to being completely taken over by any single idea (even if the variegated idea systems are all religious ones, the effect can still work).  This does not mean that multiple cultures must be physically present.  Japan is very mono-cultural by Western standards, but its people are constantly exposed to other cultures via the media, film and TV, the internet, etc.

Over the last couple of centuries, improved hygiene, vaccines, and other medical innovations have massively reduced the threat posed by infectious disease -- to the point where diseases like AIDS or covid, which probably would have passed literally unnoticed any time before 1800, now register to us as major threats because the epidemic diseases that once routinely killed 10% to 20% of whole populations at a time are mostly under control or even effectively extinct.  Rising levels of religious non-belief in Europe, the US, Latin America, and even the Middle East show that we're making similar progress against mind-viruses.  It is still hard to imagine a world without religion, but a few generations ago it would have been hard to imagine a world without smallpox.  We can do this.


Blogger Lady M said...

The God Virus by Darrell Ray is a good read and makes the argument that religion is like a virus. If you have not read, I highly recommend it.

21 August, 2023 11:43  
Blogger NickM said...

One of my A-Level Biology textbooks had a picture of the last poor sod to get smallpox. He was a Somalian (I think). The total eradication of this virus is one of the greatest achievements of humanity. Not just because it was an unalloyed good in and of itself but... if smallpox then what's next? I mean, "We can do this, right?". Bring it on!

(Of course the US CDC has it on ice and so does Putin... But he wouldn't? Would he? I mean would he? Is he so deranged as to take the World down with him?)

Whether viruses are actually organisms is something that fascinated from A-Level Biology. Many years later that edge still intrigues me. Many organisms that are definitely organisms in and of themselves are essentially parasitic.

The jewel wasp enslaves cockroaches, stinging their brains in ridiculously precise spots and injecting mind-controlling venom. The wasp then leads its zombified roach to a chamber, where it lays a single egg on its perfectly relaxed host and seals it inside with pebbles. Here the larva bores into the roach and feeds off of its organs before killing it and emerging from its corpse into the light of day.


It is not unique. There are other creatures that need to "host" another species to procreate and often in far from PG-13 ways. God, Gaia, whatever is a bitch who needs a dry-slap. I mean prions? What the fuck are they? If viruses are the edge of life then they are well over the event-horizon. And then there are probably Gandalf's "Nameless Things" yet to come. Scary? Hell, yeah! But then that is why I went into astrophysics. There are many more things. And quite a few of those would make Poe or Lovecraft besoil themselves.

Religion can often be simply a comfort blankie for those who dare not venture into the sewers of things that make the creations of HR Geiger look like hamsters or the true grandeur of an immense and uncaring Universe which for me makes the sheer wonderment of my very existence so much more meaningful than if I'm only here for the rehearsal of a bizarre morality play.

I don't believe in God because I see no reason. I also don't feel a "God-shaped Hole" because a Universe just above 0 Kelvin and some some extraordinary goo is so much more beautiful and that we struggle to understand (and sometimes, just sometimes, get) is so much more ravishingly gorgeous. I guess it is the slime and the sublime.

22 August, 2023 05:08  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

I've read in more than a few articles that the younger generations, even in the Bible Belt, are moving away from religion. It is going to happen here, and it IS happening here, slowly, but surely.

22 August, 2023 07:34  
Blogger Mary Kirkland said...

A lot of things can 'infect' an easily influenced mind. My younger brother is unfortunately one of those people who are easily influenced into believing all sorts of things in this way.

22 August, 2023 13:30  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Lady M: Thanks, I had not heard of that. I'll see if the local library has it.

NickM: It is striking that some viruses which attack insects can cause complex and specific changes in the behavior of those insects, changes which obviously serve the purpose of enabling the virus to spread. It makes the analogy with religion even more apt.

I'm not much concerned with whether viruses "are life" or not. That's a debate about the word "life", not a debate about viruses. Nature is what it is, and inevitably the categories and terminology we devise to describe it occasionally run into oddities that are difficult to classify.

If we ever do discover life elsewhere in the universe, I'm sure it will include abominations beyond any of the horrors we know of now (of course the parasitically-reproducing creature in Alien was inspired by the digger wasp), but hopefully we at least won't find any religions out there.

Shaw: It certainly is happening, and in many parts of the world, including places like the Middle East which once seemed very unpromising. The effects of education and cultural pluralism are inexorable, however much the hard-core believers resist.

Mary K: This is another of the dangers. People who have turned off their critical thinking and skepticism to accommodate religion are more vulnerable to all kinds of other nonsense. It's impossible not to notice that many people who cling to religion are also anti-vaxers, conspiracy theorists, claim the Moon landings were faked, etc.

23 August, 2023 00:17  

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